War Stories

Clinton in Pyongyang

What’s behind the former president’s “private” trip to North Korea?

Editor’s Note: According to news reports this afternoon, North Korea has pardoned the two imprisoned American journalists.

Photograph of Bill Clinton arriving at the Pyongyang airport by KNS/AFP/Getty Images.

News comes this morning that former President Bill Clinton is in North Korea, talking with Kim Jong-il and his top aides. And, though no officials are saying so, this suggests that a diplomatic breakthrough could now be in the offing, if one is possible at all.

U.S. officials claim that Clinton’s visit—which was kept secret until his unmarked plane landed in the North Korean capital—is a “private” trip for the sole purpose of freeing the two American journalists who were arrested in March for illegally entering North Korean territory and have subsequently been sentenced to 12 years of hard labor.

It is hard to believe, though, that a trip of this sort, by someone of Clinton’s stature, could really be private in the common meaning of that word. It’s also puzzling that Clinton, whose powers as an envoy can be elicited only so often, would be dispatched simply to negotiate the pardoning of a couple of prisoners—though it’s certainly true that, as a practical (and moral) matter, no substantive talks can be held with North Korea until those two young women are released.

The real surprise would be if he weren’t there at least to explore broader strategic issues—and the big strategic issue in that part of the world is the future of North Korea’s nuclear-weapons program and whether there’s some way to resume talks to dismantle it.

Scott Snyder, director of the Asia Foundation’s Center for U.S.-Korea Policy and author of Negotiating on the Edge, the best book about Pyongyang’s diplomatic style, said in an e-mail this morning, “In North Korea, nothing is separated from politics.” Sending former President Clinton, as opposed to a current high-ranking official, “is a convenient way of acknowledging this truth without having to own it.” In other words, if things don’t work out as hoped, the Obama administration can disclaim association.

This is standard procedure in dealing with the Hermit Kingdom. In 1994, during his own first term as president, Clinton sent Jimmy Carter to Pyongyang to explore resolving a crisis over its then-nascent nuclear program, which had very nearly led to war. Carter’s trip was billed as “private,” but he wound up discussing the basic terms of what, several months later, became the Agreed Framework, an accord signed by the two countries that kept North Korea’s plutonium program under lock for the next eight years.

When George W. Bush scuttled the Agreed Framework at the start of his term, the North Koreans tried to use Bill Richardson as a middleman to reopen talks—a futile gesture since, at the time, Bush had no desire to go the diplomatic route.

Carter and Richardson were ideal informal emissaries. When Carter was president, he once announced that he would withdraw all U.S. troops from South Korea. He dropped the idea after it met fierce resistance from Congress, even among liberal Democrats; but after leaving the White House, he received repeated invitations to visit from Kim Il-Sung, then North Korea’s “Great Leader.”

Richardson had negotiated with North Koreans on two occasions: first as a congressman, over the remains of a constituent whose military plane had been shot down when it drifted across the border, and second as U.N. ambassador, over the release of an American citizen who had been jailed after accidentally crossing the border while on a hiking expedition.

And now, it can be inferred, they are probably happy to meet with Bill Clinton, who had, after all, put in place the Agreed Framework. Toward the end of Clinton’s presidency, the two sides were on the verge of signing a follow-on accord to prohibit North Korea from developing or exporting missile technology. But Clinton, understandably, chose instead to spend his final months in office trying to wrap up a Middle East peace treaty—to no avail. (In the first months of the Bush presidency, Secretary of State Colin Powell told reporters he would pick up where Clinton left off in North Korean talks, but Bush slapped him down and forced him to retract his remarks.)

The prospects of renewed arms talks hit a new low in May when, in defiance of U.N. Security Council resolutions, North Korea tested a nuclear bomb, followed up with tests of several missiles, and punctuated the affair with all-too-familiar crank rhetoric about setting the soil of its enemies ablaze if they dared respond by imposing sanctions.

To compound the hostility, Kim Jong-il, North Korea’s “Dear Leader,” was reportedly dying of cancer. Speculation ran high over who was really in charge and whether, in the impasse, the military might have boosted its influence. However, when I asked a senior administration official if anyone really knew what was going on in North Korea, the world’s most opaque country, I received a one-word reply: “No.”

Now Bill Clinton may be about to find out. On the more immediate issue, he will reportedly be bringing home the two American women, Laura Ling, 32, and Euna Lee, 36, whom North Korean soldiers arrested on March 17 near the Chinese border. It’s likely that this gesture was promised as a precondition for Clinton making the trip.

Beyond this, officials say Clinton is carrying no instructions to offer the North Koreans any deal or exchange on broader issues. In literal terms, this is no doubt true. When Carter went to Pyongyang in 1994, he way overstepped his mandate—he was told only to explore the possibilities of an accord, and he practically wound up negotiating one. President Obama runs a very tight ship. It’s a safe bet that he drew assurances that Clinton would not take Carter’s freelancing as a precedent.

Still, Clinton did meet with Kim Jong-il and with Kang Sok-Ju, a top foreign-policy official whom no American officials have seen for years. Whoever or whatever faction is in control in Pyongyang, they may want to make some kind of deal with Obama. In this latest round of North Korean aggressiveness, China’s leaders, who could usually be counted on to resist demands for severe sanctions, seemed to have been truly shaken. The Kim family’s longtime knack for playing the world’s larger powers off one another may have worn out. They might want to come in from the freezing cold that they would certainly face if sanctions were hammered down hard.

However, other concerns are rattling around. Desmond Ball, a prominent intelligence expert at the Australian National University, has written a widely publicized paper reporting that Burma is cooperating with North Korea on an ambitious nuclear program involving extracting and enriching uranium with a goal of producing one nuclear weapon a year by 2014. The report is based on testimony of two Burmese defectors, and some Western officials find their stories credible.

So, should President Obama restart talks with North Korea, if Clinton reports that Kim wants to resume that path? Yes, but this time the talks must be different, on both sides.

In the 1994 Agreed Framework, the North Koreans put their nuclear fuel rods under international inspection and pledged to dismantle their nuclear program. In exchange, the West was to supply energy assistance, including two light-water nuclear reactors, and the United States was to establish full-fledged diplomatic relations. The West never came through with the reactors or the normalization. By the time George W. Bush finally started negotiations in his last two years, the North Koreans had set off a nuclear explosion and Washington was desperate for a diplomatic success, so the deal was hastily reached, and the loopholes were porous.

Resuming talks is more than useful; it’s necessary. Three previous presidents have learned—even Bush, though tragically too late—that, horrible as the North Korean regime is, it doesn’t seem to be unstable; it’s not about to fall apart; sanctions are difficult to muster, much less administer; military action is unfeasible, given the possibility of devastating retaliation. So diplomacy is the only way out, but it has to be serious. And this time, the North Koreans have to take the first step. Freeing the prisoners may be just that face-saving gesture. If so, Obama needs to follow up with one of his own—perhaps agreeing to one-on-one talks.

But then serious talks have to commence, and actual dismantlement of North Korea’s hardware—which, in past accords, was scheduled way down the road (in Bush’s, there wasn’t even a timetable)—has to be high on the agenda.